#29 – The Man in the High Castle Review – Philip K Dick

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The Man in the High Castle is probably one of the most famous examples of “Alternate History” in all of literature. Philip K. Dick’s vision of a world in which the Axis powers (Japan and Germany) won the second World War is a bone-chilling exploration of the notion of truth, authenticity and the unreliable nature of reality. In showing us a world that could-have-been, Dick is able to explore (in typically mind-bending Philip K. Dick fashion) the idea of false realities and the value we place on objects, people and events that we think of as being “True”. And while the idea that our reality may not be the real (or only) reality is a common theme among Dick’s novels, Castle provides the reader with a much more tangible narrative structure and immersive story than some of his other books, allowing him to weave in these deep philosophical themes and ideas in a way that is subtle yet deeply powerful. Although I’ve had trouble with some of Dick’s late-period novels, this one really succeeds on multiple levels: as a story of intrigue and espionage between two superpowers, as a tale of resistance and rebellion against tyranny and oppression, and as a meditation on how we understand history through the prism of our own sense of reality.

The Man in the High Castle Summary: The book takes place in an America that is divided amongst the world’s two remaining superpowers – with German controlling most of the Eastern portion of the country and Japan controlling the West coast (with the central Rocky Mountain region serving as a buffer zone between the two nations). Since winning the war and dividing up most of the territories of the world, the two victors have since become engaged in their own “Cold War,” with each side suspicious of the others intentions and engaged in espionage in order to keep them from gaining too much power. There is a an extremely unsettling and horrific passage in the book that describes the atrocities that the Nazis had unleashed upon the population of Africa as part of their “Final Solution.”

The human drama takes places mostly in Japanese occupied San Francisco, following Frank Frink as a man who deals in pre-war Americana reproductions while dealing with life under his new Imperial rulers. Frink’s company then sells those fake items to a man named Robert Childan who sells them to collectors and businessmen as if they are real. The notion of whether or not these “Reproductions” of artifacts are authentic or not (and what the notion of authenticity even implies) is one of the ways in which Dick is able to get us to start thinking about the confusing truths that surround the things we think of as containing “History.

Now here is where the story gets really twisted. Throughout the first part of the book there are references to a subversive novel that was written by a reclusive writer who is supposedly holed up in a castle (hence the title) somewhere in Colorado. The novel in question is called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and tells of an alternate history (within the context of the novel) in which the Allies actually won the war. In effect, the book is an alternate reality within an alternate reality, describing a version of history much like our own (although not exactly the same). The German’s think that the book and the ideas it represents are dangerous, and send an operative to assassinate the writer (hence the reason for living in solitude in a castle).

The Man in the High Castle Review: I’ll be honest. It is more than a little disturbing to be presented with a world that shows us the possibility of what could have unfolded had the circumstances been different. But as Dick turns the tables on us and makes us confront the horror of living in a world occupied and ruled by our enemies, he is also showing us that the tenuous nature of reality gives us the ability to create our own history and that the simple fact of imagining a reality that is different from our own can be considered a treasonous act. In these days of state controlled censorship and an apathetic media that just broadcasts the “Official” story (I’m talking about our world now), this idea is particularly relevant. Who controls history? Who is responsible for writing down the truth? What is the truth of our reality anyway? It is these questions that form the heart of The Man in the High Castle and make it such an important book and one worth reading.

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August 31, 2010

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